STEAM museum Swindon. Otherwise known as STEAM – the museum of the Great Western Railway. As a rule with these Swindon in 50 More Buildings posts the title is the name of the building – the Link Centre for example. But it’s somewhat impossible to give a singular name to the Grade II listed building that houses this tourist tribute to God’s Wonderful Railway. And that’s because it comprises a number of buildings.

NB: this post is about the building that houses STEAM museum – NOT the museum itself.

STEAM museum Swindon from the side
STEAM museum Swindon from the side

According to the museum website, the structure now containing STEAM is ‘ a complex piece of industrial archaeology’ that comprises several buildings built over a long period. The earliest of these buildings is the 1846 machine and fitting shop -part of Brunel’s original Works complex. Once known as the scraggery* this area now houses the museum’s entrance hall and public facilities.

*Nuts and bolts were renovated for re-use in a process known as scragging.

 STEAM museum Swindon 1846 - front desk
STEAM museum Swindon 1846 – front desk

The building retains its queen-post roof and some original windows. To the south is the much-modified blacksmith’s shop. It also dates from 1846, although its conversion to a substation early in the twentieth century caused dramatic alterations to its character.

The main body of the museum

The main body of the museum served as a machine and turning shop – set up when the GWR covered over a courtyard between the original 1843 Brunel engine house and the 1846 machine and fitting shop. Finished in two stages between 1865 and 1872 the ‘R’ Shop features a ridge and furrow roof with case iron columns supporting it.

Despite modification in 1929/30 the building remained a machine shop for most of its life. For the most part it contained belt-driven equipment – until the outbreak of WWII at any rate.

Come the 1960s, the building again underwent modification – this time into a wheel shop. This conversion saw the removal of the block floor and the addition of a new concrete slab. Despite all these alterations though, it retains many original features. Some of them emerged during the refurbishment process.

With the assistance of both English Heritage and the *Royal Commission for Historic Monuments (RCHM as was), a conservation plan was drawn up before work began. There was also a photographic survey before building work began – and throughout the project.

*The research section and the archive of the RCHM are now part of Historic England.

STEAM museum Swindon - old sign

Where is it?

STEAM sits at the heart of what was once one of the largest railway engineering complexes in the world. It has the outlet centre to its left, Churchward House in front of it and just beyond that, Heelis – the HQ of the National Trust.

As the STEAM website tells us, ‘Swindon Railway Works opened in January 1843 as a repair and maintenance facility for the new Great Western Railway. By 1900 the works had expanded dramatically and employed over 12,000 people. At its peak in the 1930s, the works covered over 300 acres and could produce three locomotives a week.

Despite a brief renaissance in the 1970s, the works finally closed in 1986.

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